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Sullins family endows new scholarship in honor or Tuskegee’s first nursing graduate

September 23, 2019

Contact: Michael Tullier, APR, Office of Communications, Public Relations and Marketing

a painting of Della D. Sullins
The portrait of Della Davison Sullins
that now hangs in Basil O’Connor Hall,
the home of the School of Nursing
and Allied Health.

Already a cherished alumna of the School of Nursing and Allied Health, 1949 Tuskegee University nursing graduate Della D. Sullins was recently honored posthumously by members of her family with an endowed scholarship named in her honor. The Della Davison Sullins Endowed Scholarship will provide financial support for nursing students.

Retired colonel and 1968 Tuskegee alumnus Palmer Sullins Jr. presented a donation in his late mother’s name during the university’s annual Fall Convocation on Sunday, Sept. 15. Sullins announced the gift during the portion of the convocation that honored the support of the university's Eminent Associates, of which he is a member. 

In addition to being forever linked to the generous scholarship contribution by her family, Della Sullins holds the distinction of being the university’s first nursing graduate. And, by virtue of Tuskegee hosting the first and only baccalaureate nursing program at the time in Alabama, she also possessed the first undergraduate nursing degree ever awarded in the state.

Sullins was among three nursing students who came to Tuskegee to obtain the necessary coursework to earn a degree when then-Tuskegee Institute launched the state’s first BSN program in 1948 — under the leadership of Dr. Lillian Holland Harvey. When the trio completed that coursework and readied for graduation on May 16, 1949, Sullins had the highest grade point average among the three, which slotted her to walk first during the ceremony — as well as into the university’s history books.

In 2018, the Sullins family donated to the Department of Nursing a portrait of Mrs. Sullins and her framed Tuskegee Institute BSN degree, signed by then-President Dr. Frederick D. Patterson and Board of Trustees Chairman Basil O’Connor. Other documents included her diploma from the Charlotte Colored High School (May 22, 1934); North Carolina Board of Nurse Examiners RN license (Nov. 5, 1937); Lincoln Hospital Training School for Nurses (Aug. 10, 1937); and her master’s degree in nurse education, with a specialty in psychiatric and mental health, from Indiana University (Sept. 8, 1959).

Sullins was born in Indian Land, South Carolina, in 1917 to Sam Roy and Cora Lee Davison — the first born of the Davison’s nine children. She would later work at the Tuskegee Veterans Hospital, where she met “the love of her life” and Macon County native Palmer Sullins. Together, they had three children: Palmer Jr., Alan Davison and Marsha Marie.

During her 33-year career with the Veteran’s Administration Hospital in Tuskegee, Sullins served a staff nurse, supervisor, assistant chief, instructor and clinical specialist. She was the first African-American nurse appointed to the Alabama Board of Nursing by then-Gov. George C. Wallace — an appointment she held for five years. She served as an adjunct faculty member at Tuskegee for 15 years, as well as the director of the practical nursing program at Southern Vocational College and as the first African-American faculty member at Troy University. She passed away in 2014 at the age of 96.

Established in 1965, members of the Eminent Associates are committed to providing the university with substantial philanthropic support through their cumulative and annual giving. The organization currently touts more than 700 members — each of whom have made at least $1,000 in lifetime gifts to the university, and who maintain their active memberships through regular contributions each year. Eminent Associates members gather for an annual meeting each year on the Saturday prior to the annual Fall Convocation.

© 2019, Tuskegee University